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What Is OpenDocument

by Sam Hiser, coauthor of Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop
The OpenDocument Format (ODF) is an emerging file format standard for electronic office documents. Representing a triumph of common sense over the methods conceived before the rise of the Internet, ODF's goals are both exciting and controversial. Early adopters of the format include state and municipal governments in some near- and far-flung places, and this makes the format's progress a thing to watch. Yet innovation theory tells us there are some hurdles we all must overcome before ODF becomes a regular topic of conversation at the ballpark. Those in the know, however, recognize that we're in about the second inning of a barn-burner. So, grab a hot dog and a beer, and settle in for a classic.

In This Article:

  1. ODF: What's It Made Of?
  2. Find It Here
  3. File Formats in General
  4. OpenDocument Format Is a Specification
  5. ODF Is an Open Standard
  6. ODF Is Not Open Source, Nor Is It Free Software
  7. ODF Is Approved for Use in Free Software
  8. Software Applications Offering ODF
  9. Adoption of ODF
  10. Microsoft's Lunge at an XML File Format
  11. The DADA Theater of Lobbying Public-Sector Customers
  12. Standardizing Document Formats Is a Natural Progression
  13. Conclusion

ODF: What's It Made Of?

XML is the "connective tissue"1 that binds different IT systems together for delivering information seamlessly anywhere across the internet. In a world where IT systems traditionally do very poorly working together or "talking" to each other, this kind of description gets a lot of attention. That's why, when the XML standard emerged in the late 1990s, people who often worked with documents recognized it as an interesting solution to a large number of document and data problems.

Enter, then, OpenDocument Format, the open standard implementation of XML for office documents. An open standard recipe for organizing document data is very different from what we're used to. Until now, the organizing principles for our document data have been hidden from public view, because they were developed by a private enterprise and used for competitive advantage. Given the obscurity of document formats and of technical standards work, it's easy to miss the importance of an XML-based open document format standard.

With the OpenDocument Format, we're talking about a very different way of doing things. Documents become the center of attention, not applications. While this has large benefits for the way information is generated, connected, accessed, and archived, it ruffles the feathers of people and businesses that are committed to the established, if inferior, ways.

How could the leading application software vendor for documents not be offended by the aspirations of OpenDocument Format? It disrupts Microsoft's influence on its customers in large and important ways--both direct and indirect. If OpenDocument Format does not launch the most important worldwide software standards battle, then it will at least provide the very best theater for the citizenry to chide, heckle, and throw tomatoes on the stage--as the established software vendor cajoles its old and new customers back into deep dependence on a single vendor.

Find It Here

OpenDocument Format (ODF) is a file format for office documents that is available to users of a growing list of software applications. IBM Workplace Managed Client, 2.0 and its sibling commercial office suite, and StarOffice 8 are the most mature tools available today to users seeking to create documents in ODF.

ODF offers an open alternative to the formats used by all of the existing Microsoft Office application versions for text, spreadsheet, presentation, and other kinds of documents. The most familiar and commonly used file extensions are Microsoft's .doc, .xls, and .ppt. OpenDocument's main file extensions are .odt (for text documents), .ods (for spreadsheets), and .odp (for presentations). These are analogous to the Microsoft extensions and will be more commonly recognized as more people and organizations adopt OpenDocument-ready software.

ODF is an ISO standard. The International Standards Organization (ISO) ratified ODF in May 2005. ISO ratification is important for any software, because it permits the software to enter the menu of approved products for procurement by many--if not most--municipal, state, and national government IT departments around the world. The successful ISO ratification took place approximately one year ago, which is why many government IT departments are now announcing ODF adoption plans. (It takes a long time for governments to plan for and implement change.)

File Formats in General

Think about it. If you were trying to design a common way to identify the location and organization of letter and number characters in varying fonts, sizes, and styles on a page for graphical display onscreen or for printout, you would be developing what is considered in computing terms a markup language. We already have several standards for markup: one is HTML (the HyperText Markup Language standard of the W3C) for web pages. HTML is being replaced by XHTML (eXtensible HyperTest Markup Language) a more explicit, stricter (less lenient, some would say) markup language for electronic documents. Now, XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is the markup language for creating special markup languages. XML evolved as a standard with the primary purpose of facilitating data sharing across disparate systems. This is why XML was chosen as the basis for the new office suite file formats. It just makes good sense to have a single set of rules to which everyone refers when designing software applications and systems that handle documents.

Office suite applications, as always, need a file format that is designed to organize the data when it moves away from the application. This is so people with different machines in different places can open and edit the data in a file. This has as much to do with computing and data transmission limitations since the 1970s as with anything else, because the software application is quite large (in terms of the amount of its code) when compared with the small amount of code in a business letter, a facsimile cover page, or even the draft of this article. Data files can easily move around because they are small relative to transmission limits (bandwidth), while applications aren't moved because of their large size. In the distant future (perhaps over 10 years from now), when limitations evolve--when, for instance, the software application may become small enough to travel with the data--the need to separate file format from application may not even exist. (Some examples of application data traveling with the data exist today, but the office suite is not among them.)

In the meantime, the design intention of the standard document file format is important. The formats most people still use today are designed and owned by a single company, Microsoft (the .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats noted above). These are not format standards in the appropriate, full sense; they are widely used, but that is not enough to call them a standard. Having an file format standard (a single standard, because having more than one is an oxymoron) is important, as it's optimal to have multiple software vendors and projects competing on price and features to provide office suite products designed from that standard. Interoperability between applications is also optimized when there is a common open standard format around which all relevant applications can be designed.

The ideal for a standard file format is one that is open, accessible to everyone, and that can be implemented in any kind of software--whether of the commercial type, or of the Free Software or open source type. The OpenDocument Format is our best chance at implementing a successful open standard file format for documents in the office suite context. It is an ISO standard and is already the target of IT policy or legislation in Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Bristol City Council (England), and at the national and municipal government levels in Belgium, Denmark, France, Australia, South Korea, and Malaysia, among others. Furthermore, there are unannounced publicly and privately traded companies that are pursuing vendor neutrality and modularity in their IT systems and expressing interest in ODF for their computer systems as the first step to an ideal end-state based on open standards.

OpenDocument Format Is a Specification

The OpenDocument Format itself is a technical specification. That is, it is essentially a document--a piece of paper. The specification is the complete set of instructions, the recipe, that any software developers or entities can freely and openly use to incorporate ODF into their software, including but not limited to office suite applications such as those mentioned above.

The OpenDocument Format specification document resides at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) website. The OASIS OpenDocument Format for Office Applications Technical Committee (OASIS ODF TC) is responsible for making changes to the format, keeping it technically up-to-date, and permitting it to evolve with innovations in document technology that will certainly occur in the future.

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